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My Martial Arts Journey Part 1: From Basketball to White Belt.

At 51 years old and starting a journey to trace what I believe to be the true roots of the martial art of traditional Tang Soo Do, I figured I should start with my journey thus far.  Not to bore you with an “It happened a long time ago….” type story, but a little background to how I got where I am now in the martial arts, would clarify why I am starting this journey at 51, and how I got to this point.  So without further adieu, here we go!

 

I’m Dr. J!

 

HS Basketball 1984

High School Basketball 1984

I remember when I was 13 years old, all I could think of was playing basketball I would shoot in my driveway for hours, sometimes hitting nothing but net and others getting nothing up mom’s newly planted flowers. That’s when we would get shooed away to the playground. That was fine with me because there were always kids to shoot with or play against. As soon as teams were selected, the next question was “Who ya’ going to be?” And I always answered, “I’m Dr. J!” Julius Erving, the Philadelphia 76ers original Air Jordan.

My dreams were of basketball greatness and hopes of a scholarship to college. I continued playing high school freshman ball as a middle schooler, making the varsity team is a
junior. My summer vacations were spent playing on the Mullen school playground court from morning until dinner time. Basketball was my dream.

 

Kung fu?

 

Kung Fu TV Series

Kung Fu TV Series

That was my dream, until the holiday season before I turned 14. We were at my uncle’s house watching TV while the adults played cards. A movie came on called  Kung Fu, about a monk in China who could fight with his hands and feet.  My favorite parts were the training scenes as he was growing up. The martial training intrigued me and lit a flame that still burns today.

I began going to our local library and getting any book I could find on the martial arts. I would read for hours, practicing what I saw as best I could in front of a mirror. What I practiced was a mixed bag of karate, kung fu, boxing, and judo because those are the only books our library had. We also had a heavy bag hanging in our basement, which I would practice on until my mom yelled for us to knock it off because it made too much noise.

I also began to follow boxing closely and began training like a boxer. I saved my allowance and purchased a speed bag, which I hung in our garage. I bought a jump rope and taught myself to jump rope and strike the bag with pretty good skill. Team sports didn’t interest me much anymore, although I still played high school basketball and soccer. Every spare
minute when I was home was either training or reading about the martial arts or boxing.

 

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

My heroes at that time were Chuck Norris and Sugar Ray Leonard.  I saw all of Chuck’s movies at the theater and followed all I could of Sugar Ray Leonard in Sports Illustrated and on TV.   Sugar Ray Leonard was scheduled to fight for the championship in Buffalo, New York the day of my senior prom and I was going to skip the prom to go to the fight. A detached retina ended that fight and my hopes of seeing him fight in person.

 

 

Halloween Sparring Marathon

Halloween Costume

Beginning Martial Arts

One incident from middle school really solidified my passion for the martial arts.  In 8th grade, I was invited to a friend’s Halloween party.  I was never much for parties, but I decided to go with a football buddy of mine, Dave.  I decided to wear my older brother’s Tae Kwon Do uniform, which he got when he tried lessons, and his sparring gloves.  My friend Dave decided to wear my boxing gloves, a wife beater, shorts, a robe and went as a boxer.  Cool outfits, but a bad idea.

Solo Training

Solo Training

We arrived at the party, saw some friends, but when the drinking started we went outside. Feeling a little out of place because we didn’t drink, and being a bit bored, we decided to spar little in the yard. Big mistake! A few people came outside for some air and watched us. Then a few more.  Dave was tired and someone else asked to step in, taking his place.  I beat that person until they quit, then someone else stepped in. Meanwhile, more and more people were coming outside to watch. I’d beat the second, then the third, and this continued for about six to eight people. Mostly due to the skills I had been training on and partly because of the alcohol they were drinking, I beat them all and held my own through all of them. Things started to get out of hand toward the end because the drunker they got, the louder and more belligerent they got. So I decided to quit, and slip away, going home.

That night got me hooked for life. The thrill of the fight and pitting yourself against someone else one on one, where your success or failure is totally up to you, blew away any team sport that I was playing. I continued to play basketball, but my heart was in the martial arts and I devoured everything I could find on the subject.

 

“Army Training Sir!”

 

Military Police

Basic and MP School Graduate

I continued to train on my own, buying books on karate in particular, because I loved the striking arts more than judo, wrestling or jiu-jitsu.  I saw every Chuck Norris movie that came out and studied his life, learning that he had served in the Air Force and received his black belt in Korea.

The summer between my junior and senior years I decided I wanted to join the military to earn my college money rather than take out student loans or have my parents try to pay for it.  I had to talk my mom into signing for me, but I was signed up and ready to leave for Army basic training before my senior year even began.  I would graduate in June of 84 and leave for basic and Military Police school in August 84.

In basic training and MP school, we had some very basic hand to hand combat, which was kinda cool, but nothing like I practiced and studied over the previous three years.  It was just basic take-downs and some wrist locks to get someone to comply or to escort them when they didn’t want to be escorted. Even during basic and MP school, I continued to read anything I was allowed to on the martial arts and would practice alone when we had some free time and could go to the base gym.

 

South Korea, Here I Come!

 

Korea

Korea

After graduating MP school and officially being a full fledged Army private and MP, they called us all down to formation to let us know our first duty assignments.  We all stood around nervously,
wondering what paradise or hell we would be sent to.  One of my buddies actually went to Hawaii! 
When they called my name my stomach dropped.  There was a long pause that seemed like an eternity, then they said “Korea!”  I just sat there, stunned.  Slowly it began to sink in.   I was going to Korea! The same place Chuck Norris learned Tang Soo Do and received his black belt!  My chances of learning from a true martial arts master were becoming a reality!

 

Camp Ames

 

Camp Ames

Camp Ames, S. Korea

I boarded a plane bound for South Korea on August 14, 1984 landing in Seoul, Korea.  After a few fun days in-processing and almost being assigned to the DMZ at the North Korean border, I was assigned to a place called Camp Ames.

Once I had my assignment i was placed on a train heading south to the city of Daejon (Taejon).  I was picked up by a Korean soldier wearing an American uniform named Corporal Shim. I later learned he was a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the US Army) or Korean soldier who’s family had money and got their sons an easy way out of serving in the South Korean Army.  He was a Korean soldier working as an MP with the unit I was assigned to.  Anyway, Corporal Shim and I made the drive in a jeep and rain to a small base nestled in a valley at the base of a small mountain.

There was a small village outside of the gate called Chong Dong Ri with a couple of clubs, a “restaurant”, a grocery type store and shops.  It was late at night and there were pretty much no lights, so I couldn’t see much.  I was assigned a room, a bed and I went to sleep.

 

Master Yun

 

Master Yun's Dojang

Master Yun’s Dojang, S. Korea

The next evening I wandered into the village and once I passed the main gate from the base I immediately heard the sounds of people shouting. I walked over to the building it was coming from and peeked inside. There were two Americans dressed in karate uniforms, a Korean woman and an instructor barking out orders. My heart skipped a beat, I found it!  The door was open, so I quietly slipped in and sat on a bench just inside the door. The instructor was short in stature but very large in presence. He barked out orders as the Americans and the woman walked the floor executing blocks, punches and kicks. At one point instructor glanced over, nodded and flashed a quick smile.  I smiled back and then he returned to barking out orders.

Once the class ended, the instructor walked over to me. We bowed to each other and I introduced myself. He said his name was Yun Tak Bong, Master Yun.   I asked what style he taught and he said “Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan”.  Tang Soo Do? The very same art Chuck Norris studied?  What luck!  Master Yun went on to tell me that he was a student of the founder, Hwang Kee, and was the head of the Korean Tang Soo Do Association for the Chung Nam region.  I do not recall his Dan number (Black belt number) but I do remember it was low, meaning he was an early student of the founder.

Yun Tak Bong

Master Yun

I asked how much lessons were and I was told $25 a month. I practically fell over!  Are you kidding me? Twenty-five dollars a month?  Needless to say, I signed up on the spot and was handed my first official dobak (karate uniform in Korean).  It was so surreal that I was standing in South Korea, in a traditional Tang Soo Do school, speaking to a master of the art about taking lessons.  Two days prior I was in my parent’s home saying goodbye!

I then introduced myself to the two American students, Roger and Kevin, both were blue belts. They welcomed me and said they had been taking lessons for about 4 months. They also said that
they had no experience before beginning classes there.  They looked good to me, and after only four months of training!  They assured me Master Yun was a great teacher and that I would love the class.

It was a Friday night and my journey would begin Monday evening!  The classes were held Monday through Friday from 7 PM – 9 PM.  I couldn’t believe it! Not only did class only cost $25 a month, but I was going to receive two hours of instruction five days per week!  This, compared to the two or three days a week for an hour per class in the states!  I was in heaven.

It was a Friday night, and I returned to my room with my new uniform like a little kid on Christmas morning.  The weekend could not go by quick enough!

 

 

Stay Tuned For Part 2:  Training in Korea.  I had tried a Tae Kwon Do class once or twice back home, but it was nothing like this!  Monday could not come soon enough and my time with Master Yun would change me forever.

 

God Bless,

kwputala

kwputala

Kevin Putala is a writer, martial arts student/instructor for 30+ years and a security officer. He created The Lone Warrior to help men rise up and become all that God created them to be by sharing his journey on the path of the Christian warrior.
kwputala

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About the Author kwputala

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a martial artist for over 32 years, a husband, father and grandfather. I am on a journey to become all that God created me and other men to be. Leader, protector, warrior, son, husband and father. I hope that through my journey and this website that I can help other men in getting on their feet and standing tall in all God created them to be.

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